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The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) was an epic religious spectacle shot in Ultra Panavision 70 that attempted to lure audiences away from their living room television sets through a massive publicity campaign, an all-star cast, and a story that had broad, universal appeal - the Life of Christ. Adapted from the title of the same name by Fulton Oursler and a series of radio scripts based on Bible stories by Henry Denker, The Greatest Story Ever Told covered all the major events in Jesus' life from Herod's slaughter of the male children of Jerusalem to Lazarus' resurrection to the Last Supper. Unfortunately, the film was also typical of many mid-1960s big budget spectacles, like Cleopatra (1963) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965). Costing more than a staggering $20 million and including a cast of some of the biggest stars in world cinema - Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, John Wayne, etc. - the film was unmercifully ripped to pieces by most critics and ignored by moviegoers.
Shot on location in Utah and Arizona, locations that could effectively double as Palestine at the time of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a monumental shoot that matched its story's epic nature. Thousands of extras, countless crewmembers, and at least 25 high profile actors and actresses dotted the landscape behind the camera (Poet Carl Sandburg even gets listed in the credits as a Creative Consultant!). Director George Stevens' penchant for endless retakes did not help the often combative situations that arose during the production. In fact, the overtime pay for crewmembers was often larger than the regular salaries of many of the people involved. At one point, snow blanketed the landscape of what was supposed to be a desert, so an armada of snowplows had to be engaged, along with wheelbarrows, shovels, and butane flame-throwers to remove the snow. The production eventually headed back to Hollywood where a huge replica of Jerusalem was built, thus skyrocketing the budget even higher. With all the post-production editing, the film's final length clocked out at 260 minutes. It was then cut down for general release to a length of 225 minutes. Still, further cuts were made and there is reportedly a version in distribution that is only 127 minutes. Regardless of the length, audiences stayed away in droves, making The Greatest Story Ever Told the greatest financial flop ever made until the release of Heaven's Gate in 1980.
However, the Hollywood film community felt differently toward The Greatest Story Ever Told and nominated it for five Academy Awards including nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects. Although the film scored zero statuettes at the April 18, 1966 ceremony, it went on to become a popular rental film at churches, schools, and film societies in the non-theatrical market. Of course, this was no consolation to United Artists who fully expected The Greatest Story Ever Told to sweep the Oscars but religious epics were passe by the mid-sixties and the studio should have sensed that.
Seen today, however, The Greatest Story Ever Told is a fascinating time capsule. Director George Stevens made it between his Oscar winning drama, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and The Only Game in Town (1970), two modestly budgeted films with small casts. There is also a certain perverse fascination in watching famous actors in cameo roles such as Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Claude Rains as Herod, Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, Donald Pleasence as the Devil, and Shelley Winters yelling "I'm cursed" as the woman with no name. They even cast Pat Boone, Sal Mineo, and David McCallum (Ilya on TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series) in hopes of attracting a younger audience. Luckily, the central role of Jesus is convincingly played by Max von Sydow, an internationally renown Swedish actor best known for his work in the films of Ingmar Bergman.
There is a great story behind The Greatest Story Ever Told that involves director George Stevens and superstar John Wayne in the role of a Roman centurion. His one line in the picture was: "Truly, this man was the Son of God." After a couple of attempts at the seemingly simple line, Stevens gently told him, "Duke, what we need in this line is something more. Look up at the man and give us some awe." Wayne nodded affirmatively, Stevens signaled the cameras to roll, and Wayne said, "Awww, truly this man was the Son of God." This anecdote probably never happened, but when John Wayne heard the story he even admitted to friends and associates that it made a great tale.
Producer: Frank I. Davis (executive), George Stevens Jr. (associate), George Stevens, Antonio Vellani (associate)
Director: George Stevens, David Lean (uncredited), Jean Negulesco (uncredited)
Screenplay: James Lee Barrett, Henry Denker (source writings), Fulton Oursler (book), George Stevens
Production Design: William J. Creber, Richard Day, David S. Hall, Fred M. MacLean, Ray Moyer, Norman Rockett
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs, William C. Mellor
Costume Design: Marjorie Best, Vittorio Nino Novarese
Film Editing: Harold F. Kress, Art J. Nelson, Frank O'Neil
Original Music: Hugo Friedhofer, Alfred Newman, Fred Steiner
Principal Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Michael Anderson Jr. (James the Younger), Carroll Baker (Veronica), Ina Balin (Martha of Bethany), Pat Boone (Young Man at the Tomb), Victor Buono (Sorak), Richard Conte (Barabbas), Van Heflin (Bar Amand), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), Janet Margolin (Mary of Bethany), Roddy McDowall (Matthew), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), Claude Rains (King Herod), John Wayne (The Centurion), Robert Blake (Simon the Zealot), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Donald Pleasence (The Dark Hermit), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Shelley Winters (Woman of No Name), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Robert Loggia (Joseph).
by Scott McGee